Libya 1991

It wasn’t going to be a normal day for a bank teller like me. It was clear after Mohammed opened the doors that foreigners had been tipped off to be at the bank early: the bearded stranger was the first person in my queue.

His transactions were easy enough: foreigners could just verify their bank account and take the 250 dinars in cash which everyone was allowed to have. That’s what he asked to do. I checked and stamped the papers and he waited while I sent them back to the manager to sign off. By this time there were about 200 people in the bank itself and Mohammed said the queue was round the block. We were one of the largest branches of the National Bank of Libya after all.

While he waited I could see the stranger listening to the stories in disbelief. Someone’s grandmother had never trusted banks and had close to a hundred thousand dinars under her mattress: what should he do? Then Mohammed came along with the news that a pick-up had just arrived stuffed with cash, banknotes everywhere: where could the driver park safely? I didn’t know, but my uncle had a fortune in Italy: was he supposed to return home?

 The bearded stranger’s papers came back and I counted out his 250 dinars. He inspected the brand new banknotes very carefully and seemed satisfied. He was one of the very very few out of the 8,000 people we saw that day who smiled. Our government had announced, just the day before, that in three days time all other Libyan banknotes – all those in circulation - would be illegal tender.